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Water-quality regulation will set precedents

Issue Date: February 14, 2018
By Christine Souza

After many hours of testimony by agricultural groups—including the California Farm Bureau Federation and several county Farm Bureaus—the State Water Resources Control Board has adopted an order revising agricultural requirements for the Eastern San Joaquin River watershed. Farm groups said the action adds layers of reporting requirements, the majority of which set precedents for other irrigated lands water-quality programs in California.

"Growers throughout the state will now see substantial changes to their irrigated lands regulatory programs," CFBF Senior Counsel Kari Fisher said, "both in terms of increases in reporting and monitoring requirements, as well as additional costs to implement the requirements."

The Feb. 7 action by the state water board initially affects growers who are members of the Eastern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition. But it also sets precedents for other regions, because it directs the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and other regional boards to update their irrigated lands regulatory programs to be consistent with the order.

"It is disappointing that the state water board has, yet again, made a decision that unnecessarily adds to the tremendous regulatory burden on the families who feed us," CFBF Governmental and Legal Affairs Manager Jim Houston said. "The board's 'one-size fits all' approach is especially troublesome because it ignores the fact that many families have been farming the same ground for 150 years, and the groundwater doesn't have a nitrate problem. It's unreasonable to treat all areas and all farmers the same."

A majority of the elements of the order will ultimately apply to other regions, such as statewide revisions to the contents and frequency of reporting requirements. Other elements, such as analysis and review of the existing Surface Water Quality Monitoring Program by an expert panel, apply only to the Eastern San Joaquin watershed. The order makes other changes to reporting requirements, including the inclusion of new reporting on potential groundwater loading from nitrogen fertilizer use and targets for groundwater quality.

State board staff had released numerous drafts of the order before its final adoption. Through oral and written comments, Fisher said Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups were able to change what she called some of the most onerous proposed requirements, such as reporting of management practice and nitrogen application information by field, identified by name.

Among its provisions, the adopted order:

  • Revises the way nitrogen application is recorded, analyzed and reported.
  • Requires farmers, starting in 2019, to report nitrogen application data and management practices to the regional water board on a field-by-field basis; the state board said this would allow analysis of whether the regulatory program is effective in protecting water quality. To provide a level of anonymity, a unique, anonymous member identification number will be associated with field-level data.
  • Requires farmers to monitor and report nitrate levels in on-farm drinking water wells, starting in 2019, if they are not already required to do so. Growers are required to notify users of the well water if results exceed the nitrate drinking water standard.
  • Imposes the same nitrogen-reporting requirements in areas considered low vulnerability for impacts to groundwater as for areas considered high vulnerability, effective in 2021, with some exceptions.

The state water board heard several hours' worth of testimony by agricultural organizations before adopting the order.

Explaining to the board that Central Coast farmers grow many different crops in multicycle rotations throughout the year, Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot emphasized that farmers "need to have some consideration, because it is going to be a data nightmare to report by crop, every individual, single crop."

Groot said the board did change some language in the order to reflect the differences between farming practices in the Central Coast and the Central Valley.

In addressing the precedents established by the order, San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson asked for flexibility for regional boards.

"They are intending for this to apply to all regions of the state and in San Diego, 97 percent of our residents are hooked up to the municipal water system; therefore, we really don't have groundwater basins that need to be protected," Larson said. "We wanted to make sure that they give leeway to the regional boards to write programs that are more appropriate for the local conditions. To have success with our irrigated lands group program and buy-in from the growers, the regulations must be appropriate for the region."

The Central Valley regional board now begins the process of reopening and revising the other Central Valley agricultural programs, including the Sacramento Valley Water Quality Coalition, by the end of this year.

Fisher said observers expect the board's adoption of the plan to be challenged by environmental groups, who had sought even more stringent requirements.

For more information on the adopted order, see and search for "Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed Agricultural Order."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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